Last year, Bitcoin turned 10. A decade after its release, the OG cryptocurrency is well known, sure, but it hardly enjoys the ubiquity its cheerleaders initially hoped for. And as is inevitable in our ceaselessly shifting tech landscape, the danger of decentralization ultimately proving to be a fad - or, to use the classic mom-ism, “A nice thought” - is looming.
Thankfully, some academics from MIT, Stanford and five other universities are on the case, and on Thursday announced a collaboration to build, essentially, a better Bitcoin. Dubbed Unit-e, the cryptocurrency is slated to be the first product from newly-founded non-profit research foundation Distributed Technology Research (DTR). Based in Switzerland, DTR’s overarching goal is to support the “distributed trust revolution,” working towards a future where humans are connected on an individual level, and centralized authority figures are a thing of the past. Their mode of transportation? Decentralized e-cash.
DTR aims to increase cryptocurrency’s transaction processing speed, which they see as the primary barrier to widespread adoption. Currently, Bitcoin is capable of processing between 3.3 and 7 transactions a second. Especially during last year’s Bitcoin bubble, when anyone with access to the internet was dipping a toe into crypto, the processing rate was noticeably, irritatingly laggy. The system didn’t scale. Visa, whom DTR hopes to overtake, averages a 1,700 per second processing rate. Unit-e’s ideal speed? 10,000 transactions per second. Hatchi-matchi, that’s fast.
DTR’s Plan to Fix Crypto
The current crypto scalability problems are inherent in its design, the team argues. The speed with which “blocks” - records of transactions - can be created is capped, as is their maximum size. DTR’s academics, many of whom have published extensive cryptocurrency research, say they’ve completely deconstructed the existing blockchain technology to best understand its limits. Unit-e, set to go live during the second half of 2019, will feature new payment channel networks and new ways of “sharding,” a process used to make databases more efficient by having nodes shoulder only part of a blockchain.
But critics of crypto argue that simply bulking up on transaction speed skates past several of Bitcoin’s larger problems, a point Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal made on Twitter.
What could Weisenthal be referring to? Well, there are indeed other potential failings at the heart of a “distributed trust revolution.” How well, realistically, does a decentralized body make decisions? Historically… not well. And then there’s the environmental impact of the electricity required for crypto mining; this year, Bitcoin’s CO2 emissions are on track to match the entire country of Singapore’s.
But more pressing for Unit-e’s creators, more immediate than impending environmental disaster or hypothetical decentralization, is the need to get people willing to use crytpo in the first place.